18 May 2007
by Charles Mpaka
James Kalako is chairperson of a youth club on HIV/Aids in Mulanje, Malawi. He is a volunteer trainer in carpentry. A Form 2 drop out almost three years ago, he intends to sit for Junior Certificate examinations. Kalako also thinks he is now in a better position to define what good things lie ahead for him. All this courtesy of Thuchila Community Based Organisation (CBO).
“This group lifted me out of despair. I don’t have parents. I used to see life through shattered spectacles,” said the young boy. “But for three years now, I have seen my life reshaping and becoming more meaningful. Now I know I can do something with myself, do something for my relations and my friends.”
Some of Kalako’s friends gather at the centre everyday. Here they are shaped and sharpened into carpenters, tailors and tinsmiths. They also accompany Kalako on an arduous errand of criss-crossing 12 villages with loads of life-changing information.
The office can perfectly pass for a wretched member of some populous slum location in town. It’s at Nkando market in Mulanje. Situated right along Robert Mugabe Highway, the centre is nearly opposite the house on the other side of the road of Patricia Kaliati, Member of Parliament for the area and Minister of Information and Civic Education.
It is, however, entirely wrong to judge the works of the CBO by the wretched appearance of the building. Thuchila CBO is purely a volunteer initiative, born out of the minds of and managed by village people.
“We were moved by the problem of orphans in our villages particularly because of HIV/Aids,” said James Mlanje, chairperson of the group. “So we decided to come together and provide whatever services we could.”
The group is managed by an executive committee of 12 members, one from each of the 12 target villages. Each village has a committee working together with the central executive.
“We have orphans in our villages who are heads of their families but they have no means of support. We train them in various skills so that they may employ themselves and take care of their families,” Chigwenembe said.
On completion of the free training, the graduates are given free sets of tools and materials according to their trade. This is to help them launch their businesses. Up to this point, 21 young women and men have graduated. Another group of 15 is undergoing training.
At the core of the project is the subject of HIV/Aids.
“We travel to villages and assist in taking care of HIV/Aids patients, spreading HIV messages and trying to change attitudes associated with the epidemic,” said vice chairperson Fainess Kafere. “It’s not an easy job but we knew long before we would meet challenges. The fact that we decided to do this on volunteer basis is even more trying as some people laugh at us saying we can’t commit ourselves this much without getting any payment. But this is how we chose to work. We’re delighted we’re useful.”
The fruits of the group’s efforts include a support group of People Living with HIV/Aids (PLWHA). The PLWHAs meet to discuss their plight and share information on experiences pertaining to their condition. Another of the group’s products is a youth club led by Kalako.
Apart from spreading HIV/Aids messages, the club manages tree nurseries for the club’s village afforestation programme. It organises fundraising activities and open days to promote interaction and exchange of information among young people.
“We advise young people against rushing into marriages instead of continuing with education, learning some trade and joining youth clubs. We tell them things that have changed our life courses,” Kalako said.
UNAids says: “Working in partnership with young people is the best hope of containing the epidemic. As well as being a resource to tap into for idealism and energy, young people’s ideas and values are not always set, and they can be more willing to question and change social norms and behaviour than adults.”
According to Kalako, their group is registering some successes.
Furthermore, the CBO runs free nursery schools, one in each of the 12 villages. They have over 250 children in all the schools together.
“We decided to include this component in our programme to relieve parents and guardians. With this facility available, we believe they can find time to work in their fields, participate in community development projects and of course properly care for the sick in their homes,” said Chigwenembe.
To have the people accept the activities of the organisation was initially very difficult. But things are changing.
”People now see the impact this group is making,” said Edith Winesi, secretary of the CBO.
“They see how useful the nursery schools have become. We’re looking after HIV/Aids patients. We also help take such patients, expectant women and others to hospital using our bicycle ambulance.”
However, there is still the characteristic story of challenges.
Winesi said they serve a very big area and the bicycle ambulance is highly demanded. She related how one patient died while they were waiting for the ambulance to return from another assignment.
“We felt like we had killed her,” she said. “May be she would have lived if we had taken her to the hospital quickly. If we had more than one ambulance, may be the story would have been different.”
Paulina Radson complained about lack of support from some parents for the kids at the nursery schools.
“We need food for these kids. Some parents think we’ll be providing food just because we started the schools,” she said. “I think it’s because we can’t provide for them adequately that we have a relatively low turnout in the schools.”
The situation is somewhat different in Likwetho Village where Jennifer Chiotcha, vice secretary of the CBO, comes from. The nursery school there has 96 children. She attributed this to the support Unicef gives to the kindergarten.
In spite of the long list of challenges, the members are undaunted in the pursuit of their mission.
“We want to go further,” said Chiotcha. “We will keep up serving our villages to address some of the problems and save and change some lives.”
Such is young Kalako’s resolve.
“The fact that I don’t get any payment for what I am doing is not my problem. My problem is to help fellow young people live a positive life and look into the future with hope.”